So I slipped past the Rentokil Control Point and a couple of Hooch bottles, still standing, until I found myself in the main courtyard of St James's Church, Piccadilly, amongst a crowd of devotees queuing for tickets. It all seemed so incongruous.
What were we doing was celebrating the life of Allen Ginsberg, New York Bowery bum, poet of subversion, Jewish/ Buddhist celebrant of the delights of the body, in a Wren church of such chilling opulence with its Corinthian capitals picked out in gold leaf and its florets of plaster cherubs staring down so curiously from the barrel-vaulted ceiling? Would Ginsberg himself have felt at home here? Could it be because this church, like Ginsberg so often, had been spectacularly bombed out on one occasion?
I walk up the immensely tall, echoing nave. Just a dribble of people so far, easily outnumbered by the gum-chewing camera crews. So pleased to be here. Just as pleased to be anywhere else by the looks on their faces. Three giant speakers are piled up together like higgledy-piggledy dice. There is a white guitar and a black one, and a huge Bechstein grand with its shark's fin yawning open. Beside the high altar, occupying its own small pew, is a giant photograph of the man himself, in hat, scarf, mac, and giant, square-framed spectacles. He looks old, sallow, shrunken - and curiously respectable, too. He's all tricked out for death's long, chilly winter - or perhaps for New York's. The altar cloth reads "Allelujah, Allelujah, Allelujah".
I last saw Ginsberg at close quarters in the winter of 1994 at the Guildhall, three years before he died. We were standing side by side at a urinal, "they do say all roads lead to the ocean," he remarked as two steaming arcs mingled, amicably and odoriforously enough, against the virginal- white wall. The time before that he'd been sitting beside me at a poetry reading in Cheltenham, listening to the publisher John Calder praise him to the skies.
Ginsberg was a small man with the boniest of knees, and I shall remember his subsequent performance to this day - the way his head wobbled so dangerously on his neck; the sight of that old harmonium of his, bouncing and jigging about on his knees like some testy, spoilt baby who requires endless distraction. And the truly terrible tunelessness of his singing as he repeated, yet again, that refrain from William Blake's Nurse's Song: "And all the hills echoed." I adored the sheep noises emanating from that huge, fat-lipped mouth. But, my God, what a torture it was listening to him sing that same line over and over again. Would he go on until the stars fell out of the skies? He seemed so priapic, so carefree, so playful, though not at all well. And then, in May 1997, he died in New York, of cancer of the liver, and his friends around the world mourned the passing of a great spirit. And on Sunday night, one year and six weeks after his death, a pacific army of old Beats, which include Lawrence Ferlinghetti from San Francisco, first publisher of Howl, and now sailing intrepidly into his ninth decade; Michael Horowitz from Notting Hill Gate, and Anne Waldman, Ginsberg's "spiritual wife," a high-octane American performance poet who co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, Colorado - gathered in London to say their public farewells to a treasured friend and an enduring inspiration.
The evening itself kicked off not with the slow, thin, sanctimonious seepage of organ notes, but with a fuzzy, foot-stompin' trumpet blast from Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers.
Then the compere, Michael Horowitz, who, just moments before, had been worrying about the fact that there was only one bottle of Evian water beside the mikes for all the artistes to swig from - "we'll all be drinking shit," he'd remarked, "how very Ginsbergian ..." - hopped up to explain why the event was being held here of all places. Because Allen had recently read in this church, and he loved its associations with his idol William Blake. "He and his brothers and sister were baptised here."
Then the liberated spirits streamed up, one after another another. The scouser Adrian Mitchell, in black horn-rimmed, elegaic spectacles recalled Ginsberg's appearance at the Roundhouse in the mid-Sixties, circling the audience, chanting and clinking his handbells. At the third circling, derision turns to wonder and delight, Mitchell remembers mistily. Oh yes, this outrageous dreamer of wet dreams about Che Guevara in the luscious jungles of Bolivia, made trouble of the highest quality. "He was the prophet of the new bohemian revolution, our prophet, our poet." Mitchell helps himself back to his pew, stricken with emotion. Allen's photo winks at him from behind the giant votive candle, but Mitchell's back is turned away from him, humped in grief.
Then a surprised guest hurries across the chancel, dodging and weaving around the equipment, in the general direction of the Bechstein, a man of middling height with a head of wild, finger-raked hair and the droopy, lugubrious eyes of a bloodhound: Philip Glass.
About a decade ago, he and Ginsberg collaborated on a chamber opera called Hydrogen Jukebox. It included a poem called "Wichita", written by Ginsberg in the mid-Sixties as a protest against the Vietnam war. They used to perform it together.
"He would sit in the curve of the piano there, reading," says Glass, "and I would be inspired." Then he slap-bangs at the keyboard wildly, muddily, for six or seven minutes. The photograph hums along appreciatively. At the end, Glass lets his nose fall very very slowly until it is almost touching the keyboard. It remains there. Is it stuck? Is he dead? No. No.
But the most extraordinary tribute of all to the galvanising energies of this dead poet comes from his old friend and poetical co-conspirator, Anne Waldman, who recalls his hyperactive last days in New York, which included hours of non-stop telephone conversations with friends around the world. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye...
Waldman's poems are a sequence of furious, grief- stricken, savagely delivered assaults upon the sheer impertinence of death for having snatched her soul-mate away from her. "It's been a great ride," she recalls him having said. But can that ever be enough for the survivor? She remembers those hours of sitting beside his noble corpse in the Buddhist Meditation Hall with the monks chanting.
"His face is extraordinarily handsome in repose. Does someone say he resembled Dostoevsky? Never again will he sit up late over a Chinese noodle bowl. Never again will his eyes water because of tear gas. Never again will he embarrass corrupt, dead presidents." Then comes the mantra, chanted wildly: "I breathed upon his body! Ohmm! Ohmm!"
When she walked away from the microphone, her astonishingly flimsy scarf streams behind her like a blaze of stars.
The emotional impact of Waldman's performance is so great that when that "national treasure" Lawrence Ferlinghetti slouches up to the microphone, loose-limbed, not in any hurry to be anywhere too soon, bald head on his shoulders like a long, stretched egg, the moment seems mildly anti-climactic.
And there is no matching fierceness in his manner, either, just one hand hooked into his belt, and the gruff-voiced, heartfelt reading, which sometimes falls to a near whisper, of a handful of poems that recall Ginsberg's needling humour when writing at his best: "America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel..."
Ginsberg seems a tender presence during these poems, close as a shadow. But death, the dark lover, caught up with him in the end. Not a single one ever escapes death's attentions.
Meanwhile, the photographers scuttle back and forth like undesirable rodents, and the Betacam cameras keep on rolling.Reuse content